APA Response to the National Institutes of Health Request for Information on Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences Research

November 27, 2007

The American Psychological Association is pleased to respond to the National Institutes of Health Notice NOT-OD-08-008, “Request for Information (RFI): To Solicit Input and Ideas on Priorities in Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences Research.” The APA, which has over 148,000 members, is the world’s largest organization of scientific and professional psychologists.

The APA applauds the NIH’s rigorous procedures for reviewing and making funding decisions for grant applications within basic behavioral and social sciences research. Virtually all of the basic BSSR projects that have been supported by NIH over the last decade are of high scientific quality and contribute to an understanding of the mechanisms underlying health and disease, to the development of advanced preventive or treatment interventions, and/or to the design of improved forms of service delivery. The NIH has also done a fine job of encouraging scientists to pursue interdisciplinary research that addresses multiple levels of analysis (e.g., genetic, cellular, systems, behavioral, social, cultural) and exploits a wide range of innovative methods and technologies.

The APA recommends that NIH maintain a comprehensive portfolio of basic BSSR research. Research encompassing the full range of topics and approaches that NIH has supported in recent years continues to make important contributions to the accomplishment of NIH’s public health mission and deserves sustained support in order to enable new advances.

The APA is concerned, however, that in recent years some significant areas of basic BSSR have lost support as budgetary pressures have increased and some individual Institutes have adopted highly restrictive notions of the types of basic BSSR that are relevant to their particular missions. The areas deserving of renewed attention include:

  • animal behavior research (both laboratory and field) that informs understanding of human mechanisms
  • individual, social, and cultural processes underlying personality, self, and identity
  • interpersonal interactions, close relationships, family processes, group processes, and social networks, across the lifespan and socio-cultural contexts
  • prejudice, discrimination, stigma
  • emotion regulation
  • higher-level reasoning, problem-solving, planning, and decision-making
  • attitudes and their relation to behavior

Behavioral research in these areas is relevant to such public health concerns as: stress mechanisms and effects; individual and group differences in the features and course of behavioral and physical disorders; development of personalized and culturally-appropriate interventions; behavior change and compliance; disease management; help-seeking, and health communications. Findings in many of these areas can also guide research on the biological substrates of behavior.

In addition, some research areas have never had clear homes within the NIH structure or have lost support as particular Institutes have redrawn their boundaries. These areas include:

  • psychological and computational models of motor control
  • normal adult language and communication processes
  • psychometric research (for assessment of the behavioral features of development and disorders)
  • organizational, management, human factors, and communications research, relevant to the improvement of health care delivery
  • methodology and technology development

While many of the most significant new projects within basic BSSR will be interdisciplinary, much can still be gained from research that works at a single level of analysis or utilizes single methods. An interdisciplinary research portfolio does not require that every individual project be interdisciplinary. The APA urges NIH to assess each proposed project, whatever its theoretical or empirical approach, on the basis of the value of its expected results and how it complements other work in the portfolio.

The APA believes that by adopting a broad and sustained approach to support of basic BSSR, the NIH will motivate scientists to pursue the most significant and creative new ideas that can lead to improvements in human health. Both existing research paradigms within basic BSSR and those on the horizon hold great promise for producing important new insights and tools.

For additional information please contact Howard Kurtzman, PhD, Deputy Executive Director for Science, American Psychological Association.